Information about sickle cell trait for student athletes
Though it has recently raised alarm in the athletic
community, exercising with sickle cell trait is generally safe
and with proper awareness and education poses no barriers to
outstanding athletic performance. Most athletes complete
their careers without any complications. But it can affect some
athletes during periods of intense exercise, when the inherited
condition causes red blood cells to warp into stiff and sticky
sickle shapes that block blood vessels and deprive vital organs
and muscles of oxygen. The trait can affect athletes at all
levels, including high school, collegiate, Olympic and
professional. But through testing and proper examinations by a
physician prior to competition, we can help athletes savor a
What is sickle-cell trait?
It’s a generally benign condition in which a
person inherits from their parents one gene for
the oxygen-carrying element in their red blood
cells – hemoglobin – and one gene for sickle
shaped hemoglobin. It is not the same as the
more severe condition, sickle cell disease, in
which both genes for sickle hemoglobin are
inherited. Those with the trait experience
normal healthy lives. Only in situations where
the body is pushed to extreme conditions, as
athletes do, can the trait sometimes cause red
blood cells to sickle and block blood vessels,
denying oxygen to muscles and organs. But in
most cases, carriers of the trait live normal,
healthy lives without incident.
How common is it?
About eight percent of the African-American
population in the U.S. carries the trait, but it
is rare (around 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 10,000) in
Caucasians. It is present in athletes at all
levels, from high school through the
Are student athletes tested for the trait?
There is no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to
compete. Sickle cell trait only becomes a threat
in certain rare situations in which athletes
push the limits of their physical conditioning.
Being aware of the trait and taking proper
precautions can help trait carriers enjoy
successful and healthy athletic careers.